By Milissa Holland
Every year elected officials, special interest groups and residents throughout the County gather in the Flagler County Commission’s board chambers to get their three minutes. Three minutes to plead their case on why their priorities are more important than those of others in the room. I have sat through many of these, wondering if these meetings are just a formality or something more. I am referring to our annual legislative delegation meeting, when Florida House and Senate members partly elected by Flagler voters listen to more than two dozen pleas from local concerns.
For the last decade, the delegation was made up of four representatives—two state senators and two State House members. This years was very different. There were just two lawmakers (one senator, one House member). The reason: The 2010 Census, which led to redistricting, giving Flagler fewer representatives but, we hope, more clout. That meant no longer being split up like a wishbone with our representatives.
So now how do we back up what we fought hard for and accomplished? Does having two representatives mean better representation? Think of it this way: previously, House and Senate members weren’t relying on Flagler County voters to hold on to their seat each election cycle. Well, now they are. Who are those two Representatives? Sen. John Thrasher and Rep. Travis Hutson. The same Hutson who defeated me in the race for that seat.
And Hutson, along with Thrasher, will be my guests on my inaugural radio show on WNZF Friday. (Call me live from 10 to 11 a.m. at 386/206-WNZF, or 206-9693).
For one hour, in what I hope will be an informal follow-up to that December delegation meeting, we will be delving into the issues that are facing our community. Now, I understand that we will not be able to solve all of our problems in that time period. But it’s a good start. I have always said that a good state lawmaker represents us in two different ways. One is by tackling statewide issues. Another is by managing the local issues of the day directly relevant to the lawmaker’s constituents.
There are many issues we could talk about on the air, but I will be focusing on a few that I know are of significance to our local leaders and residents. The short-term rental problem dominated the December delegation meeting, with people on both sides of the issue speaking about their position and how it’s affecting them. I am very familiar with this issue and dealt with it as a commissioner. It should be a matter of local control. But a bill passed in the 2011 legislative session took away a remedy for the county to resolve this issue. That’s what usually happens when special interests get involved. To be fair, the bill was trying to help homeowners facing foreclosure to continue to own their home and generate revenue to pay the mortgage.
There were unintended consequences. I have not heard any of the residents complain about rentals. Their complaints are over using residential homes as a business, in a neighborhood where homes were sold as single family dwellings.
From the county’s perspective, we had made several attempts to resolve this issue locally. It is is a significant health and safety issue for our first responders. Our building department approved these homes as single family dwellings with that expectation. Yet some of these rentals are being marketed as having seven or eight bedrooms and having the capacity to sleep 20 to 30 people at a time. They are being rented weekly. These residential units are not currently equipped to handle a fire emergency, and our guys, our firefighters, would have no idea how many people are inside the dwelling. It’s an obvious danger to the dwellers. It’s an unnecessary danger to our first responders, who now have to worry not just about fighting a fire, but figuring out if everyone inside has been accounted for.
Beyond the danger to life and limb, imagine the damage to Flagler County’s image if we were to have such a tragedy—all from lack of proper oversight that the state is preventing. Florida tourism won’t suffer, so the state doesn’t have much of a vested interest in proper regulation. Flagler tourism would suffer greatly, and blame will focus on Flagler.
I will be delving into this issue and seeing if there is a resolution that would be beneficial to all parties involved.
Another request at the December delegation meeting was to require online travel companies already collecting the Florida bed tax and sales tax to remit those funds to the state and to counties. Right now these out-of-state companies are not doing so. The state is losing out on millions of dollars each year. This is a significant loss of revenue when our state and local governments are trying to find revenue sources to offset the burden for services to our residents.
These out-of-state companies are profiting from the direct benefits they get in the state, while skirting their responsibilities. I will be watching this issue closely in particular because I believe our state policy makers will be looking at possibly doing away with the property tax and going to a formula of using the sales tax to fund the budget. We’ll talk about that possibility in a future show.
Then there’s the matter of allowing state prisoners to be housed in our local jail—or having them forced onto our local jail. As a community that has had significant discussions regarding our need to expand our existing facility to meet current needs for space, I cannot think of a piece of legislation that would be more detrimental for us if this bill is passed. It costs a tremendous amount to house an inmate daily: $91 a day, up from $75 a day in 2005 (the sheriff’s budget for the inmate facility is $5.1 million, its average daily inmate population is 154). Now the state wants our residents to take on an additional burden.
We would be better served by an overhaul of the incarceration system to give our local law enforcement officials the ability to meet our needs. After all we are not Miami Dade, and our crime rates differ from theirs significantly.
A few other issues generated discussion in December and may get broached on Friday–the realigning of Old Kings Road, statewide legislation for synthetic drugs and Internet cafés. There is also new legislation being proposed in regards to red-light cameras. I know this is an emotionally charged issue right here in our community.
So often we have complained about what Tallahassee is doing to local governments. Now we have a real opportunity to have meaningful discussions that move our agendas and priorities forward. It’s incumbent on us to keep the momentum going. That way we are not sitting here next year fighting the same battles instead of taking on new ones.
I got the sense after speaking with both Sen. Thrasher and Rep. Hutson that we are very much on their radar screen, and they are looking to us to help support them to accomplish our goals. I will be looking to you the readers and listeners to seek your input on these items as well. Feel free to share your comments below, ask the questions you’d like to hear posed to your representatives on Friday, and join the discussion. It’s a new day, so let’s get the conversation started.
Milissa Holland, a Flagler County commissioner from 2006 to 2012, is host of Milissa Holland Live on WNZF 1550 AM, Fridays at 10 a.m. Her column will appear here every Wednesday. Reach her by email here, on Facebook or on Twitter. While she’s on the air Friday morning between 10 and 11, call her at 386/206-WNZF (or 206-9693).